Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review -- The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

I just finished reading The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks this weekend. Cyberkitten read and reviewed the book several years ago. It's a great review and I agree with everything in it. This is truly an epic book and does a good job with characterization and bringing disparate cultures and species together in a believable story. Rather than try to improve on CK's review (which would be futile), I just want to list a couple of my favorite passages:

"The Truth went a stage further, holding that this was difference that could be made to make a difference. What was necessary was for people truly to believe in their hearts, in their souls, in their minds, that they really were in a vast simulation. They had to reflect upon this, to keep it at the forefront of their thoughts at all times and they had to gather together on occasion, with all due ceremony and solemnity, to express this belief. And they must evangelise, they must convert everybody they possibly could to this view, because - and this was the whole point - once a sufficient proportion of people within the simulation came to acknowledge that it was a simulation, the value of the simulation to those who had set it up would disappear and the whole thing would collapse.

If they were all part of some vast experiment, then the fact that those on whom the experiment was being conducted had guessed the truth would mean that its value would be lost. If they were some plaything, then again, that they had guessed this meant they ought to be acknowledged, even - perhaps - rewarded. If they were being tested in some way, then this was the test being passed, this was a positive result, again possibly deserving a reward. If they had been undergoing punishment for some transgression in the greater world, then this ought to constitute cause for rehabilitation.

It was not possible to know what proportion of the simulated population would be required to bring things to a halt (it might be fifty percent, it might be rather smaller or greater), but as long as the numbers of the enlightened kept increasing, the universe would be constantly coming closer to the epiphany, and the revelation could come at any point.

The Truth claimed with some degree of justification to be the ultimate religion, the final faith, the last of all churches...

...It could also claim a degree of universality that the others could not. All other major religions were either specific to their originating species, could be traced back to a single species - often a single subset of that species - or were consciously developed amalgams, syntheses, of a group of sufficiently similar religions of disparate origin..."

The "Truth" is the prevalent religion in the galaxy. Of course, any description of this religion that may seem similar to Christianity is purely coincidental (right). What I like about this book specifically and the sci-fi/fantasy genre, in general, is that you may seem like you are talking about one thing, but you are really talking about something else altogether. The cloak of science fiction gives one license to explore controversial subjects stealth-like. We've certainly seen that in things like His Dark Materials (The Church, free will) by Phillip Pullman and in Battlestar Galactica (fundamentalism, war on terror, torture, etc.).

The above passage and the following one also show that Banks is well-versed in philosophy. In this case, Bostrum's simulation thesis.

" ... Any theory which causes solipsism to seem just a likely an explanation for the phenomena it seeks to describe ought to be held in the utmost suspicion."

The Algebraist is also just a darn entertaining book that doesn't assume that you take any more out of it than that. But if you want the added meaning, you don't have to dig very far. You will not find much better fiction that explores the importance of rationality so well.

Si Se Puede (Yes, We Can)

Today's protest of Arizona's anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, drew anywhere between 20,000 and 75,000 people, depending on who you listen to. The 5 mile march between Indian School Park and the Capitol was peaceful, multicultural and did not result in a single arrest, though you certainly wouldn't assume that considering the police presence:

I was heartened by all the groups in attendance.  You'd assume that it would only be Latinos, but there were a lot of Native Americans and African Americans, both as marchers and speakers.  They (and we) rightly see this as a basic issue of human rights. 

This might be an over-used (and over-revised) quote, but it still fits:

"THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

and by that time no one was left to speak up."

The spirit, creativity, and humor of all in attendance was evident:

I'm glad we went.  I think it was important to show our son the positive influence of a peaceful protest.  As they say, the family that protests together, stays together.  Maybe they don't say that ... but they should.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Free enterprise as morality?

John Stossel on FOX News this week:

"[I]t's time now to repeal" the Public Accommodation section (of Civil Rights Act), "because private businesses ought to get to discriminate. And I won't won't ever go to a place that's racist and I will tell everybody else not to and I'll speak against them. But it should be their right to be racist."

"What they have to discover, what all the efforts of capitalism's enemies are frantically aimed at hiding, is the fact that capitalism is not merely the 'practical,' but the only moral system in history." -- Ayn Rand, "Capitalism : The Unknown Ideal"

Bill Moyers on Fresh Air:

"... I think the most important thing that we can do is to continue to treat Americans as citizens, not just consumers. If you look out and see an audience of consumers, you want to sell them something. If you look out and see an audience of citizens, you want to share something with them, and there is a difference.

Libertarians need to stop praying at the altar of Ayn Rand. Do you honestly believe that businesses would stop discriminating because the market told them to or because it was right? Even William F. Buckley didn't agree with this, "I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow," Mr. Buckley said in 2004. "I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary."

William F. Buckley Jr., in an essay written in the 1960s, directly confronted the libertarian/Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. "The conservative's distrust of the state, so richly earned by it,"Buckley wrote, "raises inevitably the question, how far can one go?" He went on to warn against those "whose passionate distrust for the state has developed into a theology of sorts, or at least into a demonology; to which they adhere as devotedly as any religious fanatic ever attempted to adhere to the will of the Lord."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How did I get here?

A recent post at Atheist Revolution got me to thinking about how people fall into their religion ... or their lack thereof. I think a lot of religious people assume that atheists and agnostics have a falling out or "crisis of faith". At least from my personal experience and from having read a lot of your experiences, this is not the case. From Atheist Revolution:

"... To be fair to both my mother and to myself, I suspect that I would be an atheist today regardless of whether she had imposed church upon me. The way my mind works and my love of science from an early age probably would have led me away from superstition regardless of my church experience."

That's not that different from where my atheism came from, though that writer seems to have a little more animosity towards the parents. Here, I'm going to try and analyze the different reasons on why someone would be an atheist and how they apply to me:

Were our parents atheists and we are just following in their steps? In my case, not exactly. I was baptised Methodist. My parents took us to church when we were young (6 or 7 and younger). But I think this was done more to appease a grandfather (my dad's dad) who was very religious. Our attendance only seemed to happen when we lived in the same town as my grandfather.

My parents never talked about God, though we always had a bible in the house. But, conversely, we were never pushed away from religion either. I even remember saying prayers before going to bed every night. We probably did this until I was about 10. It didn't seem weird to me at the time, but it also didn't really seem spiritual. Just another daily ritual like brushing your teeth and giving your parents a kiss before going to bed.

I think that is a big part of my realization at a fairly young age that I didn't believe in God. Religious rituals like going to church, praying, etc. seemed like just that ... rituals. There was no spark. There was no feeling of a divine connection. I was doing the things because society made you feel like that was "normal".

Were our parents screwed-up Christians and that pushed us away from religion? That wasn't the case either. They certainly weren't devout but they also weren't sitting around railing on the church. Simply, my folks just never talked about religion or politics. I know it's wacky, but they thought their job was to provide a home, food, education, boundaries and to encourage their children. Parents are doing a disservice to their kids if they feel they have a mandate to do anything else. When you see kids holding "God Hates Fags" signs or you see a movie like Jesus Camp, how is that kind of parenting not child abuse?

Did I have a "crisis of faith"? That is a popular assumption - that all people are born religious and something pushes them away from it. I think this is a lot rarer than than most people would believe. Just because someone may have been born into a religious family and may have went to church does not mean that they ever believed in God.

They are not "losing" faith but rather gaining a confidence that they can express the fact that they never believed in the first place. In the current climate in the U.S., that is not a trivial occurrence. Society, as you may have noticed, does not embrace atheists.

I cannot personally speak for the opposite - for those people who may have been born without religion or went through atheist phases and then "found" religion. I would suspect that the situation is similar in that they always had faith but it took awhile for them to come around to that realization. But, I'm sure there are those that truly did not believe in God but later changed.

What about those that were born Christian and readily admit that they believed in God but had a change of heart? This would seem to be fairly common and not to just run-of-the-mill types that never go to church. It can even happen to the most devout (bible scholar Bart Ehrman, for example).

Those cases seem to born of education or, at the very least, a removal from limiting environments where they would not know of alternatives. Ex-Mormons would certainly fit into this category, though not all Ex-Mormons give up a faith in God in general.

People may leave the church, but not leave God. Even Christians would have to admit that organized religion can be pretty fucked up -- priests buggering young boys and churches who seem more concerned with raising money that with raising souls. If these particular instances also cause people to leave God altogether, that has more to do with people not understanding how a caring God could allow those situations to happen. And you would have no argument from me on that one. How, indeed?

So, I do not believe in God. I never did. I did not give up God because something bad happened or because someone told me to. God did not make sense to me even before I could intellectually grasp why. When my education caught up with my intuition, it merely confirmed what I already knew.

God was yet another societal construct that was put in place to help me stay in line, like a teacher, or a policeman. Something to ease my fears of death. No more than that. I'm not afraid of death. I am afraid of believing something just because it is convenient and comforting. But, that's just me. This was my path. This is how I got "here".

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" -- Epicurus

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review: why does E=mc2 by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw

Possessing a fairly technical background -- engineering degree, college calculus and calculus-based physics -- I'm not completely lost when I read science books. Still, I'm 20 years removed from college and have not found a lot of cause to use any of that. And brain cells are readily killed by lack of use and beer.

So, when I heard of why does E=mc2? on the Daily Show and I read its cover promising, "the most accessible, entertaining and enlightening explanation of the best-known physics equation in the world ...", I was encouraged. The following excerpt from the book does a good job of confirming my optimism:

"the provocation lies in the way the science challenges us to think
about the world around us
. Scientist or not, each of us has intuition and we all infer things about the world from our everyday experiences. If we subject our observations to the cold and precise light of the scientific method, however, we often discover that nature confounds our intuition. As this book unfolds, we will discover that when things whiz about at high speeds, common-sense notions regarding space and time are dashed and replaced by something entirely new, unexpected, and elegant. The lesson is a salutary and humbling one, and it leaves many scientists with a sense of awe: The universe is much richer than our everyday experiences would have us believe. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the fact that the new physics, for all its richness, is filled with a breathtaking mathematical elegance.

... science at its heart is not a complicated discipline. ... it is an attempt at removing our innate prejudices in order to observe the world as objectively as possible. It may be more or less successful in that goal but few can doubt its success in teaching us how the universe “works.” The really difficult thing is to learn not to trust what we might like to think of as common sense. By teaching us to accept nature for what it is, and not for what our prejudice may suggest that it should be, the scientific method has delivered the modern technological world. In short, it works."

That's part of the strength of this book - It gives a general perspective on the role and scope of science while explaining a specific concept. I guess that helps to make it less of a dry and scholarly tome.

The basic thing to take from the theory of relativity is that mass and energy are interchangeable. Also, space and time are not not mutually exclusive entities but rather interwoven ones. Our observations of each are dependent on our location and our speed. That may seem abstract, but it has been experimentally proven. If the variations of time predicted by Einstein were not taken into account, the GPS system in your car would not work. "Time ticks at a different rate on the orbiting satellites than it does on the ground."

That's the big kicker. People could not get through a single day without using technology that has been developed using science, and theory, and experimentation. Though, many would pretend they are not and would deny science and would seek to deny others from using it.

Science does not revel in perpetuating myth, but rather in destroying it: "Science is at its heart a modest pursuit, and this modesty is the key to its success. Einstein’s theories are respected because they are correct as far as we can tell, but they are no sacred tomes. They will stand, to put it bluntly, until something better comes along. Likewise the great scientific minds are not revered as prophets but as diligent contributors to our understanding of nature. There are certainly those whose names are familiar to millions, but there are none whose reputations can protect their theories from the harsh critique of experiment. Nature is no respecter of reputations."

Besides the previously mentioned technology that relies on an understanding of E=mc2, there are experiments going on right now that will further our understanding of the nature of particles and will perhaps lead to an even better understanding of the nature of our universe. If you want to know that they are trying to do and what they are trying to find at the Large Hadron Collider, I would suggest you read this book and, perhaps, Particle Physics – A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close, as reviewed very well by Cyberkitten.

I liked this book quite a bit. It's not a book filled with equations. But don't kid yourself. When they say "accessible", they are stretching it a bit. There is still a lot of talk about "Minkowski spacetime", the "Higgs field", quarks and gluons. But any reasonably clever person can read this book and get a better handle on relativity.

Note: For anyone that might want to download this book to their PC or book reader, I found a full PDF version at: why does E-mc2?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Political Song of the Day - Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. From Wikipedia:

"The Kent State shootings ... occurred at Kent State University in the city of Kent, Ohio, and involved the shooting of unarmed college students by members of the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4, 1970. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.

Some of the students who were shot had been protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Richard Nixon announced in a television address on April 30. Other students who were shot had been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance.

There was a significant national response to the shootings: hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the United States due to a student strike of four million students, and the event further affected the public opinion – at an already socially contentious time – over the role of the United States in the Vietnam War ..."

Sometimes the cost of speaking out is paid with our lives. All the more reason to keep speaking out. Don't assume your government ... the military ... the police always have your best interests in mind.

"To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men." -- Abraham Lincoln